Black Lives Matter – pulling down racism is much harder than pulling down statues

Graham Campbell charts the success of recent anti-racism but says there is still a long way to go

I have spoken on TV and radio about statues many times since the death of George Floyd. I have been actively supporting efforts to bring together all the main Black Lives Matter (BLM) organisers of protests and demonstrations across Scotland. That has borne fruit in the recent formation of the Black Lives Matter Scotland collective with its own organising principles based on intersectional Black liberation politics. As one of the founders of BLM in Glasgow in 2015 when members of the US BLM movement came to Scotland on the Ferguson tour, I am delighted to see the movement kick off in Scotland. We all felt the ‘George Floyd moment’ viscerally and it chimed with that small minority of us who already knew the name of Sheku Bayoh. We felt that hurt and anger all over again. Meanwhile, so many more learned his name for the first time on the BLM demos.

For the last 13 years, I have been active in campaigns to highlight Glasgow’s slavery and colonial legacy. I’ve had some successes as Project Leader of Flag Up Scotland Jamaica lobbying the University of Glasgow to commission a report into its slavery origins of the financial bequests that paid for the Gilbert Scott building on Gilmorehill. The University of Glasgow renamed the £400m Student Learning Hub it built on University Avenue, the James McCune Smith Building in recognition of being the first African American to hold a medical degree at the University. In the University chapel, we dedicated a memorial stone in recognition of the enslaved Africans exploited by Robert Bogle who had owned Gilmorehill. I even was able to run for election as Rector with one of my main campaign themes being to complete the Reparative Justice journey begun by this initial creation of an International Study Centre for the Scottish-Caribbean legacy. The 2019 signing of the Memorandum of Understanding between the Universities of Glasgow and the West Indies was a memorable act of reparative justice heralded by a specially written poem from Scots Makar, Jackie Kay, and with the Jamaican flag flying above the campus.

I have for all that time argued with councillors and with cultural heritage and architectural experts that the street names and statues need amended by something saying how they got their wealth and that they were not just ‘merchants’ but dealers in commodities – tobacco, sugar and cotton – produced exclusively by chattel slavery. I have been consistent in saying that capitalism in Scotland – particularly its industrial and financial roots – stems from its links to slavery. Glasgow and Edinburgh have had a deliberate organised forgetting of their slavery past. As the title of Dr Stephen Mullen’s seminal 2008 work It Wisnae Us: The Truth about Glasgow and Slavery suggests, ‘it wisnae us’ has been the standard retort when it comes to confronting Scots complicity in the slavery business.

Roll on more than a decade and now the weight of many more historians’ evidence – including Tom Devine coming round to the Williams thesis (Dr Eric Williams’s 1944 thesis Capitalism and Slavery) shows just how important slavery was to the development and growth of capitalism in Scotland and its development as a nation. Billy Kay on radio with Scotland’s Story and David Hayman on TV in 2018’s landmark two-part BBC documentary Slavery: Scotland’s Hidden Shame have both done so much to bring that legacy into the popular arena, prompting widespread discussions on the mythical narratives both British unionists and ‘tartan shortbread’ Scottish nationalists tell themselves about Britain being abolitionists (neatly forgetting the 250 years of slavery bit before abolition) or saying it was the English when in fact much of the so-called English slave trade was, of course, perpetrated by Scots-owned companies in London, Liverpool and Bristol trading with Scots-owned plantations in the Caribbean and the US and with Scots slave traders off the West African Guinea coast.

The racism of yesterday is inextricably linked to the racisms of today and is hard-wired into the very institutions originally created in Scotland during the slavery days which are still with us – universities, courts, big business, banking and finance, land ownership, cultural heritage museums and galleries, the civil service and local and national government.

Yet something new and different happened on 7 June 2020. Spontaneous BLM demonstrations mobilised the largest crowds of Black people ever seen on Scotland’s streets. Across Scotland perhaps as many as 30,000 were on our streets, our parks and even our beaches from Dumfries to Shetland, from Orkney to Oban and in all our large cities and towns. Many progressive white people responded by trying to be good allies, by no longer being silent in the face of racism. Even Black and African Scots themselves had never felt or seen this before. It was a moment of Black political arrival that has already changed the dynamics of the anti-racism movement in Scotland. No longer are Black Scots satisfied with well-meaning white liberals and leftists leading a struggle that should be for the victims of racism to take the leading role. BLM on 7 June was about the racism in all its forms that young Black Scots have experienced growing up under a devolved Scotland. From micro-aggressions in shops, offices and public places like buses and trains to police harassment and institutionalised racism in the job market and in education, they were reacting to a very distinct Scottish form of racism – partly based on a denialism and false historical narratives that have sadly developed under the very noses of the avowedly anti-racist SNP Government that’s been in charge of these institutions for the last 13 years.

That day in Glasgow’s so-called ‘Merchant City’, members of the Celtic Green Brigade took direct action and affixed their own street names dedicated to Rosa Parks and Sheku Bayoh amongst others in place of those streets named after slavery laced merchants like Cochrane, Glassford, Buchanan and Ingram, and George Square became George Floyd Square for the day.

Several significant moments occurred in the Edinburgh protests which centred around the Dundas column and statue in St Andrew’s Square – Jamaica’s Honorary Consul to Scotland, Sir Geoff Palmer (now 80 years old), spoke passionately on the BLM platform on 7 June that history cannot be changed but that how we react to it can. This Emeritus Professor of Brewing Science and amateur historian has campaigned against the received wisdom about Henry Dundas (Lord Melville). For years, he’s been arguing that Dundas as the virtual dictator of Scotland was single-handedly responsible for allowing slavery to continue for a further 15 years by inserting the word ‘gradually’ into Wilberforce’s abolition bill. Sir Geoff spent two years on an historical advisory committee commissioned by the City of Edinburgh Council to rewrite the words on the plaque in front of the statue. However, right wing historian Michael Fry and the Dundas descendent Lord Bobby Melville fought Geoff on that committee and prevented its rewording.

Yet, a few weeks later a BLM demo called for the Dundas statue to come down – inspired by the events in Bristol taking Colston’s statue down and in Oxford where Rhodes might finally fall. Edinburgh activists from the BLM movement – reawakened to the presence of these obscene monuments to those who prospered from the mass murder and enslavement of Africans under chattel slavery were now demanding that they come down and that street signs be removed. Luke Samuels who led the statue protest has argued for Dundas Street in Edinburgh and Glasgow be renamed ‘Emancipation Street’ to reflect the fight to abolish slavery. I’m in no doubt that without the BLM moment, Sir Geoff would not have finally been successful in getting Council leader, Adam McVey, to finally install a public information board explaining the change in wording which has now appeared in St Andrew Square.

BLM activists vary about whether these names and statues should come down immediately or whether a public awareness campaign and through the changing the education curriculum – a key demand of protests in June – should take place first so that society gets the full benefit of any discussions about Scotland’s past. Right now, one can easily tell the story because the names of those merchants mean the evidence of slavery is in plain sight. There is a distinct danger that simply taking them all down without placing them in a museum for context or having a properly organised public consultation and wide public awareness campaign will create the conditions for misunderstanding and a further round of forgetting.

Not long after the big BLM demo, a shadowy group calling itself ‘Glasgow Youth Arts Collective’ called a demo against the Robert Peel state in George Square – why only the Peel statue we don’t know. No one knew who they were but they associated it with BLM despite not at all being authorised. In the end, they didn’t even turn up but triggered misleading articles in the Murdoch press that provoked a counter demo of far right football hooligans to ‘defend the statues’ which had never been in danger. A few days later the same far right groups were allowed by police to run amok against anti-racist campaigners that were demanding rights for refugees in the wake of the Park Inn hotel tragedy.

There are pitfalls to simply taking down stuff – in Bristol, the Council had already decided to remove it 2 years ago but it took that long because the Black community did not have the political clout over many decades to get rid of Colston earlier. Only with the coming of its first directly elected (and Black) Mayor, Marvin Rees, was this possible, and the BLM demo enacted this decision much faster than planned but as Bristol Lord Mayor and Green Councillor Cleo Lake said, in the Hayman documentary, it was an insult to have Colston’s statue so revered for so long. No one should be sorry he’s gone but Bristol has not yet got reparative justice and neither has it achieved the end of institutional racism.

I always make that point that statues and street names reflect the colonial empire and the world made by imperialist white men from those days. They designed these streets and the statues that members of the public paid for by subscription celebrated those who they thought were important to remember. In recent times, the only two statues of women (other than Queen Victoria) – La Pasionara and Helen Barbour – were erected by Glasgow citizens campaigning with very different values and politics from their ancestors. The future statue of Nelson Mandela (at the Place named after him in 1983 much to the annoyance of the then South African Apartheid regime consulate) will also through public subscription reflect our city’s anti-racist and internationalist values. Even Glasgow citizens’ artistic and comedic repurposing of the Wellington statue into Conehead territory shows how a statue intended for one political purpose – the glorification of war and empire – can be completely co-opted for another. Wellington was transformed by the action of citizens demanding equality and human rights with the appearance of a Black Lives Matter cone on 7 June.

I have always stressed that we could get rid of all the statues and street names tomorrow but we would still have institutionalised racism the day after. It is the public education that will start to rid us of the often hidden institutions and practices that sustain racialised discrimination. Making these structures and social relations more visible is why anti-racist education is much more important. The many tens of thousands of people who have signed petitions along with BLM Scotland expect Holyrood to implement the demand to amend the Curriculum for Excellence Social Studies benchmarks to include a specific experiences and outcomes measure: ‘I understand Scotland’s historical role in empire, colonialism and transatlantic slavery, and the diversity of Scottish society in the past.’ This key BLM demand for decolonising the Curriculum means junking the Eurocentric white supremacist version of history too often taught in our schools. It is a key demand that needs to be heeded by the Scottish Government and by Holyrood in the very near future.

Graham Campbell is an SNP Councillor for Springburn/Robroyston in Glasgow. In 2017, he was elected as Glasgow’s first African Caribbean Councillor and was instrumental in Glasgow City Council holding its first ever official Black History Month. He is Project Leader of ‘Flag Up Scotland Jamaica’ a twinning exchange project formed during the 2014 Commonwealth Games.